Books of Hours
Brochure text and exhibition commentary edited by Miss Alison Stones of the Department of Art History, University of Minnesota.
Wilson Library University of Minnesota May 25-July 10, 1970
The Book of Hours made for the use of the laity, corresponds in some respects to the Breviary which contains the standard text for the Divine Office for the use of priests and monks. They both contain texts for use at the offices of the canonical hours of the day but differ from the other main group of liturgical books, those for use at the Mass, which include the Psalter, Gospel Book, Epistle Book, Gradual, antiphonary etc. and of which the most important is the Missal.
The Book of Hours evolved in the 13th century as an appendix to the Psalter. The Psalter was produced for the private devotion of the laity and to it were attached elements which became features of the book of Hours--the calendar and litany of saints, prayers, the Little Office of the Virgin, and the Office of the Dead. The latter were originally part of the Breviary text and were adapted from it and added at the end of the Psalter text. The Book of Hours is completely independent from the calendar of the church year. It is not obligatory in nature; and it is not an official liturgical text.
Essential to a Book of Hours are the following 6 items: 1. The Calendar. The place of use can often be deduced by what particular saints and feast days are enumerated. 2. The Hours of the Virgin. This is the principal element of the volume. It is divided into 8 parts--one for each of the canonical hours of the day: Matins (Originally midnight), Laudes (sunrise), Prime (6 a.m.), Terce (9 a.m.), Sext (noon), None (3 p.m.), Vespers (sunset), and Compline (9 p.m.). First evidence of the use of this devotion was in the 10th century. 3. Penitential Psalms. Psalms 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129, and 142. 4. Litanies. Liturgical prayers. 5. Suffrages. Prayers recited after Vespers or Laudes to the honor of God, the Virgin and the Saints. 6. The Office of the Dead.
Secondary features of the Book of Hours often include the following: Fragments of the Gospels; Passion according to St. John; the prayer "0bsecro te" (a favorite prayer to the Virgin found in almost all manuscripts); the prayer "O intemerata" (on the basis of this text it can be determined whether the original patron was a man or a woman as the text is said in the first person and the pronouns and adjective endings must be either masculine or feminine); The Hours of the Cross; The Hours of the Holy Spirit; The Joys of the Virgin; and, The Seven Requests of Our Lord. Additional items which may be included are: Hours in honor of various Saints; various prayers, prayers for the Christian life, Psalter of St. Jerome, the Ten Commandments, and so forth.
In the 15th century, Books of Hours were regarded as so essential to a person's spiritual life that it is probable that there were few families of any importance that did not possess one. They became the most common form of private prayer book and continued in popularity until early in the 16th century.
By the 15th century there is evidence that most manuscripts were produced by lay workshops that included scribes, calligraphers and illuminators, and that these shops existed in the major centers of commerce and were quite independent of the monasteries. There is evidence from the tax rolls of Paris from the middle of the 13th century, and from the published documents originating in the north of France and Flanders, that scribes, parchment makers, illuminators and booksellers lived in the same areas of the cities and towns and were already practicing their craft in an organized way. It is also probable that illuminators were to some extent itinerant and moved from shop to shop.
Several names of illuminators are known both from documents and from their signatures on the books themselves, notably Honore (active 1280s-1300 in Paris), Pucelle (active c. 1320-1340 in Paris), Jean Bondol, the Limburg brothers (d. 1416 of the Plague), Fouquet, etc. Names of scribes are also known both from documents and from the books themselves, such as Robert de Billyng who wrote a Bible illustrated by Pucelle, and whose name indicates that he was probably an Englishman working in France.
The Book of Hours was generally the result of cooperative effort. One person would probably do the simple writing, another the gilding, another the illuminated letter, and another the complete pictures or miniatures. Tiny pierced marks were made on the vellum and then faint red or blue lines were ruled for the scribe to follow. A close look at some of the pages on exhibit will show these lines. In his De diversis artibus, Theophilus gives an account of a medieval recipe for making of ink: "Dry for two to four hours the wood of thorn trees picked in April or May; peel the bark by beating the wood with mallets, and soak it in water for eight days; boil the water, adding bits of bark at intervals for a short time, and cook it down until it thickens; then add wine, and cook again. Place the liquid in pots in the sun, until the black ink purifies itself from the red dregs. Afterwards take small bags of parchment carefully sewn, and bladders, and pouring in the pure ink, suspend them in the sun until all is quite dry. When dry, take from it as much as you wish, temper it with wine over the fire, and adding a little vitriol write." Richness of the works executed were in proportion to the liberality of the customer or the greatness of the destined owner. Gold decoration was applied in three different ways: (1) metallic gold was beaten into thin sheets called gold leaf; (2) gold paint, made by grinding gold leaf into a powder on a porphyry slab and mixing it with white of egg; and (3) gold granules, obtained in the process of washing gold and afterwards burnished.
In Books of Hours the layout of the illuminations is fairly standard. A full-page miniature, often encircled with a leaf border, precedes each of the main divisions in the text, and the subject represented illustrates something relevant to that text; so a miniature showing David is commonly found before the Penitential Psalms, a crucifixion scene before the Hours of the Cross, Pentecost before the Hours of the Holy Ghost, and a funeral scene before the Office of the Dead. The Office of the Virgin has a scene for each section of the Office: Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Annunciation to the Shepherds, Adoration of the Magi, Presentation, Flight into Egypt, Crucifixion, and Pentecost, or Coronation of the Virgin. The suffrages are usually illustrated by a miniature showing the Saint invoked in the prayers.
The scheme of decoration is, like the text of the Book of Hours, developed from other liturgical books, in particular the Psalter. From the 11th century the Psalter text is frequently preceded by a series of full-page miniatures illustrating scenes from the early life of Christ and the Passion. In Missals a single full-page miniature, preceding the canon of the Mass, is usual, while in the Breviary, as in Bibles and the illustrations within the text of the Psalter, the illumination takes the form of historiated initials.
In style the most important development throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, the era in which the Book of Hours was in vogue, was the increased use of naturalism and in the rendering of figures in spaces. In the illustration of Books of Hours this shows itself in the miniatures by the increasing use of naturalistic backgrounds as opposed to the gold and diaper that is normal in the 13th and 14th century. Gold and diaper do continue into the 15th century but are gradually replaced by blue skies, and landscape backgrounds with trees and flowers. Architecture takes on more three-dimensional qualities and is rendered in the 15th century with more understanding of perspective.
The inherent problem of space and realism shows itself in the treatment of border illustration, often used to present another level of reality from that of the picture-plane of the main miniature, and including hybrids, fantastic creatures and animals, frequently with little or no relevance to the theme of the miniature. It is in the border area that flowers and leaves are often illustrated with great naturalism, particularly in Holland and Flanders, while in France the stylised ivy, developed in the 13th century, lingers on.